Friday, April 18, 2014

A Few Favorite LPs for Record Store Day

For the past few years, I've managed to find myself in Seattle for Record Store Day. I have the Parish Collective to thank for that (thanks, Parish Collective!); their annual Inhabit Conference takes place in the Emerald City, and probably by accident it seems to perennially land on the same date as the annual ode to the LP.

There are, I believe, three record stores within walking distance of the Inhabit Conference, which takes place at the Seattle School of Theology and Psychology. I am confronted by my age when I go, as most of the music is way off the grid, way past my prime. But I go anyway, because records deserve my respect.

Find a record store near you! Click here.
This year, however, Record Store Day falls on April 19, the day before Easter, so I'll be home in Illinois. But I'll still try to track down a record store. It just seems appropriate to resurrect this classic musical form.

Records were big for me when I was a kid. My brother and I shared a room, which means we shared a stereo, which means we shared records - except the records I acquired when I accidentally committed mail fraud against the entirely innocent Columbia Record and Tape Club, who had graciously offered me eight records for a penny, and who apparently never got the eight dollars and forty-nine cents in cash I mailed them to cover their shipping and handling costs, because eventually they sent a collections agency after my parents for the full value of seventy-some dollars. Mom and Dad went off on that collections agency for taking advantage of a little kid, but they also recognized my culpability and took my records away. (I got them back as a high school graduation present, by which point I was pretty much over Judas Priest and John Cougar Mellencamp.)

I would sit in my bedroom listening to albums a lot, like an emo boss. I got a lot of mileage out of Queen's Greatest Hits, for example; I would play the song "Someone to Love," and then I would pick the needle up off the record and plop it back down at the beginning of the track to hear it again. We didn't have a fancy-schmancy repeat button, but we dealt with it.

My first record, that I recall, was Freeze Frame by the J. Geils Band. My brother's first record was Pyromania by Def Leppard; my sister's was (I believe) Seven and the Ragged Tiger by Duran Duran. I remember feeling vastly superior to her because by then I was listening to INXS's Shabooh Shoobah, a vastly superior album by a vastly superior band.

The most expensive record I ever bought was Sting's live concert double-album Bring On the Night, which cost me about eighty dollars because I got a speeding ticket on the way home from buying it. I had borrowed my boss's car to go get the record, and her license plates were expired, and I wasn't wearing my seat belt, so I'm lucky I got off as cheaply as I did. By the time I went to college, my dad told me I shouldn't spend so much money on records anymore, so I started buying tapes.

The end of vinyl as the dominant music delivery system arrived almost simultaneous to my graduation from high school. Maybe that explains my nostalgic attachment to it. It's not musical snobbery: I don't have the purist's appreciation for the superior sound of vinyl, and while I do like the tactile experience of placing a needle on a disc and then flipping it from side A to side B, I also like to press shuffle on an I-Pod and let the robots do the work. But there are some albums that I appreciate as whole pieces, and even though I no longer own one of my favorites on vinyl, and even though I've only ever enjoyed another of my favorites on cassette or Spotify, I still think of those albums as LPs - "long plays" - making music at thirty-three and a third rotations per minute. Here are ten of those special cases, hurriedly assembled in an order that could change at any moment.

10. The Beatles, Let It Be. Sure, Phil Spector went a little overboard on the "sheets of sound" for a few of the tracks, but it starts ("Two of Us") and ends ("Get Back") so perfectly, and all four Beatles are firing on all cylinders. Plus Billy Preston on the keyboards. What a way to end an era.

9. David Bowie, Aladdin Sane. I had a giant Aladdin Sane poster hanging in my dorm room. This album features my favorite Bowie song, "Panic in Detroit" - and for me to call a Bowie song my favorite is saying a lot.

8. Genesis, The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway. So good. I used to only listen to one of its four sides, but now I'm hooked from start to finish. Read the liner notes; total head trip.

7. U2, War. I think this was my first exposure to U2. It's the only one of their early albums I can't get enough of.

6. Stewart Copeland, The Equalizer and Other Cliffhangers. I knew a drummer in Des Moines, Iowa, who thought Sting was an idiot because he walked away from the greatest drummer in the world to pursue his solo career. Copeland's music is signature and cinematic; I often jump straight from this album to his score for the movie Rumble Fish.

Hear Stewart Copeland's "Tancred Ballet" here.
5. The Police, Ghost in the Machine. Speaking of Sting and Stewart Copeland, I first fell for the Police when I saw the video for "Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic." I decided I would totally hang out with those guys. And that's pretty tame compared to "Demolition Man" and "Hungry for You." So good.

4. Taj Mahal, The Best of Taj Mahal. My high school friend and band mate Dan Woolis gave me this album, I think as a graduation present. So much better than Judas Priest. A very folky kind of blues.

3. Squeeze, 45s and Under. This is the album I only ever had on cassette. But Squeeze immediately became my favorite new wave band. Songwriters Glenn Tilbrook and Chris Difford were often compared to John Lennon and Paul McCartney; I don't know about that, but they were crazy with the wordplay. As greatest hits collections go, this one is missing several tracks, but the ones that made the cut are awesome, and when I hear them in a different sequence, I get a little confused.

2. Led Zeppelin II. I suppose everyone has a favorite Zeppelin track off this album. For me it's "Ramble On," which I liked long before I realized it was borrowing from The Lord of the Rings. But start to finish, a great album.

1. Fleetwood Mac, Rumours. It's no surprise to me that this is the album Fleetwood Mac is known for. I actually prefer to listen to it on vinyl. Not sure why, but it feels only appropriate.

That's my list. What records make your list?

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

The Evolution of a Prayer

During a Holy Week service earlier this week we were led in the following prayer:

Let us pray for all who suffer and are afflicted in body or in mind;
* For the hungry and the homeless, the destitute and the oppressed
* For the sick, the wounded, and the crippled
* For those in loneliness, fear, and anguish
* For those who face temptation, doubt, and despair
* For the sorrowful and bereaved
* For prisoners and captives, and those in mortal danger
That God in his mercy will comfort and relieve them, and grant them the knowledge of his love, and stir up in us the will and patience to minister to their needs.
It's a good prayer and worth praying. But it struck me as I prayed it that folks in these circumstances are often the objects of our prayers. And to pray this prayer is not, generally, to act more practically on their behalf. It is, essentially, to outsource their cares to God, while (inadvertently, of course) taking credit for their care.

One workaround would be to pray as a larger whole of whom these folks are a part:

Let us pray for all among us who suffer and are afflicted in body or in mind;
* For the hungry and the homeless, the destitute and the oppressed among us
* For the sick, the wounded, and the crippled among us
* For those among us in loneliness, fear, and anguish
* For those among us who face temptation, doubt, and despair
* For the sorrowful and bereaved among us
* For prisoners and captives, and those in mortal danger among us
That God in his mercy will comfort and relieve them, and grant them the knowledge of his love, and stir up in us the will and patience to minister to their needs.
At the very least changing the prayer in these minor ways acknowledges our proximity to these others in need. This takes the prayer up a notch in a couple of ways, most notably that we must acknowledge that we often do not have the will and patience to minister to the needs of those among us - and even more soberly, that there are potentially people in our midst who are in some way in mortal danger, imprisoned or held captive. We often think of the church as a place of escape, but in reality it is in many ways a microcosm, a locus for all the suffering of the whole world.

A more intriguing prayer, perhaps, is to pray not for those who suffer but for those who impose suffering on others:

Let us pray for all who inflict suffering or pain in body or in mind:
* For those who hoard food or refuse shelter, and for those whose actions have left others destitute and oppressed
* For those whose actions and decisions foster illness and injury, both temporary and chronic
* For those who engender fear, anguish and loneliness in others
* For those who sow or exploit temptation, doubt, and despair
* For those whose actions and decisions increase sorrow and bereavement in the world
* For those who hold others captive, or who place others in mortal danger
That God in his mercy will confront them, and grant them the knowledge of his love, and stir up in us the will and patience to minister to their needs.
Here we are forced to acknowledge that suffering has its origins in real places, among real people. We are confronted not with the noble, distant, conceptualized poor but with the human headwaters of evil. Further, we are forced to contend with the idea that God loves even those who perpetrate evil, and that confronting evil is, in some mystical way, a ministry to those who perpetrate it.

And then, perhaps, to take the final step and acknowledge our complicity in the world's suffering:

Let us pray for all of us who have inflicted suffering or pain in body or in mind:
* For when we have hoarded food or refused shelter, and for when our actions or decisions have left others destitute and oppressed
* For when our actions and decisions have fostered illness and injury, both temporary and chronic
* For when we have engendered fear, anguish and loneliness in others
* For when we have sown or exploited temptation, doubt, and despair in others
* For when our actions and decisions have increased sorrow and bereavement in the world
* For when we have held others captive, or placed them in mortal danger, for our benefit
That God in his mercy will confront us, and grant us the knowledge of his love, and stir up in us the will and patience to repent and conform our actions and decisions to the God who died for the sins of the world and rose again to conquer death.

Monday, April 14, 2014

A People's Commentary on the New Testament: Matthew 1

Lately as I've listened to sermons at churches I visit, as I sit in plenary sessions at Christian conferences, even as I occasionally teach from the Scriptures myself, I've felt an uneasiness about what I'm hearing - even sometimes coming from my own mouth. It's not heresy per se that I'm reacting to; it's more that I feel as though I'm missing a part of the whole story.

For all the Reformation-yelping about sola Scriptura and the priesthood of all believers, the Bible is, by and large, mediated to the masses through the literati - through scholars who write commentaries, through trained (and untrained) clergy who interpret the text in their sermons, through Sunday school teachers who direct the learning of their students, through publishers with fallen and finite editors such as myself. Nothing wrong with that - except that, like everyone, the literati have blind spots.

As Geoff Holsclaw recently posted on Facebook (which means it must be true), "In the West, we often do not understand the Bible because it is written from and to a minority group people." Not all parts, of course; much of the writings of the prophets and the wisdom literature were directed toward what could be thought of as the empire of Israel. And of course, the Bible has never been closed to the powerful or the majority. But these qualifications don't disqualify the observation: in contrast to the default expectations that a Western literati brings to the Scriptures, they are, by and large, set in a context of oppression and marginalization. And for most of us who read them in the West, we overlook stuff when we forget that.

Hence the project I'm now thinking of:

A People's Commentary on the New Testament

I'm inspired in this project by Howard Zinn, who wrote A People's History of the United States to emphasize, in contrast to the more sanitized histories on offer, that "the history of our country ... is a striving, against corporate robber barons and war makers, to make those ideals a reality — and all of us, of whatever age, can find immense satisfaction in becoming part of that." Zinn's book has transformed the teaching of history and has inspired a slew of other, similar works, including Diana Butler Bass's A People's History of Christianity, which showcases movements within the history of the church but outside the dominant authority structures of the church.

I have read neither of these books. I'm a little lazy, quite honestly. But I'm inspired by them nonetheless, and particularly to extend this "people's" project to our commentary on the Scriptures.

It is, I suppose, predictably audacious for someone such as myself to undertake such a project. People of privilege are rarely shy about speaking and writing on behalf of people without privilege. But it's what's on my mind, so I'm going to give it a shot. I fully expect to fail at it, to furrow the eyebrows of people I like as well as people who make me uncomfortable. I fully expect to add confusion alongside insight to the popular conversation about the Scriptures. In other words, I see the folly in this undertaking. But I'm still going to undertake it. :)

I invite you to undertake it as well, because otherwise it's not a people's commentary, it's a person's commentary. If you're game, pick a chapter of the New Testament and interpret it online. As you write, think about people you know (or see, or imagine) who are not sitting in the halls of power. Think of the author not as someone with an advance payment in the bank and a Macbook Pro on their lap but as someone with no place to lay their head. Use the hashtag #PeoplesCommentary so the rest of us can find it, and so eventually we can sync the whole thing together.

And now, without further ado, a people's commentary on Matthew 1.

***

This is the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah the son of David, the son of Abraham. At the outset of the Gospel we are alerted to Jesus' special status. He is the anointed one. He is of the lineage of David, the first great king of Israel, who ushered in the greatest days of this people's history. He is also (of course) a descendant of Abraham, the father of nations - only one of which counts in the people's imagination. Here are Jesus' bona fides, demonstrating that (a) he is qualified to be the long-awaited Messiah and (b) he is of higher rank and status than those rank and file Israelites who may stumble across this story. The powers that be will not be able to discount him.

From here we trace the lineage through the generations.

Judah the father of Perez and Zerah, whose mother was Tamar. And yet three verses into the Gospel we are reminded that the patriarchs were not without flaw. Tamar, who suffered neglect and exploitation by the family of Judah, when she was handed off to the brother of her husband after his wickedness resulted in his death. The second brother, Onan, was obligated by custom to produce offspring "for his brother" with Tamar, a custom that had the happy side effect of ensuring some security for the widow. But because any child would not be counted as his but as his dead brother's, Onan instead "spilled his semen on the ground," raping Tamar and robbing her of whatever security she was entitled to. "What he did was wicked in the LORD's sight; so the LORD put him to death also."

Judah was still responsible to this widow of now two of his sons, but he did nothing for her until she plotted to secure herself. She disguised herself as a prostitute, and became impregnated by Judah. When he realized what she had done, he declared her "more righteous than I." Twice exploited sexually by this clan that was obligated by custom to care for her, I suppose she was.

In any effect, by reference to Tamar here readers are reminded that Israel's heroes had feet of clay; mighty Judah was not morally superior to Tamar. Moreover, within the constraints of the system they find themselves in, the powerless are more powerful than they sometimes imagine. This Jesus somehow bridges the gap between the lofty and the lowly, and there is a subversive streak in his genealogy that may offer some hope.

Salmon the father of Boaz, whose mother was Rahab, Boaz the father of Obed, whose mother was Ruth. The genealogy of Jesus spirals like a double helix, meandering back and forth between patriarchs and kings, on the one hand, and people ostensibly outside the concern of Israel's God. Here we find Rahab, the first Gentile "early adopter" of the God of Israel, who brought Israelite spies under the protection of her roof in Jericho and was welcomed into the family of God for her efforts when Jericho was destroyed during Israel's siege of the Promised Land. Here we also have Ruth, a Moabite, whose inclusion here not only ties Jesus to King David but again reminds the reader that the greatness of Israel's past is not without darkness; Moab their enemy is also Moab their cousin, Moab the mother of their greatest king.

The story of Ruth also, of course, reminds Israel that there is precedence for reconciliation among enemies. Ruth the Moabite married into the clan of the future king (and future Messiah) not once but twice. In committing herself to Israelite Naomi, Ruth showed the kind of redemptive initiative and gracious commitment that is not usually imagined for people outside the family of God. The genealogy of Jesus subverts Israel's narrative as virtuous by extension of their chosenness, even as it operates within the parameters of that narrative. Jesus is a true child of Israel, even though there is no such thing.

David was the father of Solomon, whose mother had been Uriah’s wife. David, whose inauguration as king ushered in a new chapter of Israel's history - no longer as enslaved or wandering people but as powerful empire - reinforces the lesson that great power is not equivalent to great virtue. Jesus' lineage here links him to the murder of Uriah and the adultery of Israel's first great king. The kingdom of Israel was built on blood, treachery, scandal; it is not above reproach and, even now under the boot of imperial Rome, it cannot claim innocence.

Thus there were fourteen generations in all from Abraham to David, fourteen from David to the exile to Babylon, and fourteen from the exile to the Messiah. Note the symmetry in Jesus' lineage. Matthew here is a poet, and there is poetic value in Jesus' birth. It is one of the great touch points in Israel's history, more significant for Matthew than Moses' deliverance of Israel from slavery in Egypt. Chapter one: Abraham is called out of Ur to father a people. Chapter two: David is called out of the sheep pen to lead a nation. Chapter three: the best and brightest are called out of Israel to atone for the sins of their empire. Chapter four: Messiah comes to deliver Israel from its current condition. This Jesus, this moment, is important.

Joseph her husband was faithful to the law, and yet did not want to expose her to public disgrace. Given Jesus' lineage, can we reasonably expect that Joseph will put Mary first over his own needs? The genealogy of Jesus in Matthew 1 is actually the genealogy of Joseph, given that Mary is "found to be pregnant through the Holy Spirit," not through Joseph.

Joseph, whose ancestor killed a man to cover up an illicit pregnancy. Joseph, whose ancestors failed repeatedly to provide for a woman under their care. Joseph, the child of kings for whom Jewish law protected and expanded their power. Could someone whose personal history is so steeped in betrayal, so indebted to the status quo and the preservation of cultural distance, really be counted on to protect someone from scandal at cost to himself?

And yet also inherent in Joseph's history is a parallel story of outsiders being welcomed in, of God judging the failure to love and serve by people of power among the people of Israel. Joseph here has learned - negatively from David and Judah, positively from Ruth and Rahab - that the God of his people is in truth the God of all peoples. The God of his people is not managed and ruled by Israelite elites but judges and saves irrespective of position.

So he decides to protect Mary. But he doesn't decide to provide for her. That comes later.

“The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel” (which means “God with us”). There is a fundamental difference between "God" and "God with us." The one is utterly Other; such a God owes us nothing, and while we owe such a God everything, our everyday lives remain largely untouched. Caesar and other emperors who fancied themselves of divine origin or mandate could be thought of as this mere kind of sovereign force. The other, the "God with us," is of another order entirely. This God never sleeps nor slumbers; this God sings over us, watches over us, invests in us. This is the kind of God Israel has always proclaimed from its very beginning, when Abraham followed a voice out of Ur and into the unknown. This is the God who, Joseph is told, now resides in the womb of Mary. To reject her, even in the kinder, gentler way that Joseph has decided to do, is to reject a God who is even now refusing to reject him, refusing to reject Israel. God's first action in the Gospel of Matthew is to commit to be "with us"; God's second act is to invite Joseph to do likewise.

Joseph ... did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife. But he did not consummate their marriage until she gave birth to a son. And he gave him the name Jesus. Joseph here is doing what Onan should have done with Tamar; he takes Mary as his wife, allowing her firstborn to be counted as the child of another father. God, not Joseph, names this child: Jesus, "the LORD saves" - "because," the angel of the Lord has told us, "he will save his people from their sins." In this first act of God in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus' ministry has already begun.

***

OK. That's the first entry in A People's Commentary on the New Testament. I took the list of names; everything else should be much easier. I hope you'll play along. Remember, mark any entries with the hashtag #PeoplesCommentary so the rest of us can find what you've written. And do me a favor and message me on Facebook to let me know when you've posted. I'll do my part and spread the word.

Tuesday, April 08, 2014

Change the Conditions of the Test: The Gospel According to Captain Kirk

I think my world changed forever in 1982. That's when I saw the movie Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. Everything I needed to know crystallized for me then:

Self-sacrifice was made real and noble in the person of Mr. Spock, as he entered an irradiated engine room to save the Starship Enterprise and everyone on it, an act that resulted in his death.

Evil was personified, ironically, in the person of Mr. Rourke from Fantasy Island, when he put a monstrous insect in the ear of the perennially honorable Pavel Chekov.

Primal rage was personified in the notoriously overdramatic Captain Kirk as he howled "Khaaaaannnnn!" like he was John Lennon in a therapist's office.

Hope was personified by Captain Kirk as well, however, when we learned an insight from his backstory in the opening scene, as he watched a new Starfleet captain undergo - and fail - the legendary Kobayashi Maru.
The Kobayashi Maru was a test given to every would-be Starfleet commander. It simulated a no-win situation that would inevitably result in the destruction of a ship and the death of everyone on board. It tested the commander's capacity to lead even when forced to abandon hope, to shepherd people into a dignified death. It prepared people to surrender to the inevitable and to appreciate their mortality.

Some people, however, are unwilling to appreciate their mortality, constitutionally opposed to the abandonment of hope. Such a person is Captain Kirk, who - alone among the hundreds of Starfleet commanders who faced the Kobayashi Maru - came out alive, with a functioning starship and a breathing crew.

Kirk refused to accept that there is such a thing as a no-win scenario. So he "changed the conditions of the text." And he beat the system. And he became the second-best Starfleet commander in the history of the franchise. (Nerd alert: I favor the next-generation Captain Picard.)

The 2009 franchise reboot Star Trek portrays Kirk's Kobayashi Maru experience in full color: we see his annoyance and frustration that he's being so artificially constrained by the fatalism of Starfleet; we see the mechanics of his manipulation of the test; we see the glee on his face as he enters the test again, knowing that this time he'll emerge triumphant. We even see the perturbation of the stubbornly logical Mr. Spock as he realizes that Kirk has not only cheated the test but cheated death.

We see, in Spock, what happens when people do not avail themselves of hope; we see, in Kirk, what happens when we allow ourselves to be calibrated to it.

***

Hope is one of the three primary colors of Christianity. The apostle Paul tells the Corinthian church that hope alone (with faith and love) endures forever; everything else - our acts of righteousness, our demonstrations of power, our body of knowledge - ultimately fades. Conversely, without hope, everything loses its luster. Even victories are hollow, and death isn't the only thing that seems final.

That's hope as artifact, and that's often how we think of it - as this discrete, static consumable that we acquire and use until we've used it up. Hope under this view is a fossil fuel, and when we're out, we're out.

When we think of hope as a primary color, however, the landscape changes. Hope underlies everything at that point; hope commingled even with such elements as despair and disillusionment, hope pollinating cynicism and fatalism. When we presume hope is present, we look at our situation differently, and we see increasingly clearly that every test has conditions that can be changed; no situation is no-win.

This is, frankly, not my strength. I take things as they are, by and large, and when they're not as I like them, I take them with more than a grain of salt. But I can't shake the memory of the Kobayashi Maru, that fateful exercise which everyone assumed to be a necessary lesson - all of us are dust, and to dust we will eventually return - but which Captain Kirk exposed as only a piece of a larger puzzle that involves death's defeat.

I also can't shake the inherent need to look for hope. It's an act of faith, really, which is another primary color of Christianity, a predisposition to assume that the God who orchestrates and oversees the general workings of our collective experience is, underneath it all, love, and thus love drives the engine that drives creation. The apostle Paul calls love "the greatest" of Christianity's primary colors, in that it vindicates faith and inspires hope, in that it conquers death and changes the conditions of every test.

Faith, hope and love. In a universe infused with these three, no situation can be no-win.

***

A key subplot of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan is the development of the Genesis device, a technology that converts uninhabitable planets into thriving ecosystems. It stinks of Boomer hubris and the superiority of human ingenuity over the genius of nature, but whatever. The device works by reorganizing matter, so to get in the way of Genesis is to get yourself killed. Kirk and his crew narrowly escape that fate when Spock sacrifices his life to usher the Enterprise out of the path of the device. Spock's dying words are a model of noble death: "The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or the one."

But no good steward of a successful franchise like Star Trek would allow a cash cow like Spock to remain dead, so of course the sequel is subtitled The Search for Spock. Buried in space, Spock is exposed to the work of the Genesis device and reconstituted - resurrected. Even Spock the skeptic cheats death. In Kirk's latest no-win situation, everybody wins.

I have no idea why I've got Star Trek on the brain today, but I'm glad I do. I'm temperamentally predisposed to see any situation as some iteration of the Kobayashi Maru. I resign myself to it and settle in for it. But when I remember hope, I remember Captain Kirk, and I see my situation differently. I change the conditions of the test, and on the best days, everybody wins.